The 13th Floor

Stephen King’s Long Journey to THE DARK TOWER

As THE DARK TOWER film approaches, there has been much speculation about how Hollywood is handling Stephen King’s epic story—an eight book, 4,000+ page series that dwarfs and contains many of the author’s best-known works.  King has offered a few clues; he told Entertainment Weekly that director Nikolaj Arcel’s film starts in media res, suggesting that the film is not a literal translation of the first book in the DARK TOWER series.  The trailer, which seems to incorporate—and modify—some events from the second book, confirms this.

Based on the ending of the final book of the series, some fans have speculated that the film will be a re-boot of King’s epic tale.  You have to read the final book to fully understand why this theory makes sense, but something the author said about the UNDER THE DOME TV series offers a kind of non-spoilery explanation.  Commenting on differences between his novel and the TV show, he said, “It’s best to think of that novel and what you’re seeing week-to-week on CBS as a case of fraternal twins.  Both started in the same creative womb, but you will be able to tell them apart.  Or, if you’re of a sci-fi bent, think of them as alternate versions of the same reality.”

It’s safe to assume that you won’t need to have an intimate knowledge of the DARK TOWER novels in order to understand the movie, but having some familiarity with the source novels will undoubtedly provide an added level of appreciation.  For those who don’t have time or inclination to tackle the King’s books over the next few days, here’s a little primer on THE DARK TOWER phenomenon—not a spoilery synopsis of the story, but a short history of the composition of the story-so-far.

Michael Whelan art: and the gunslinger followed

Stephen King began writing THE DARK TOWER nearly fifty years ago, during the summer after he graduated college.  Initial sections of THE GUNSLINGER (Book One) came to him like a fever dream—partly inspired by Sergio Leone westerns and partly by Robert Browning’s Romantic poem “Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”  The initial story was simple, summed up in the first very line—“The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed”— but within the simple narrative, King began discovering relics of a universe so vast that the young writer immediately felt overwhelmed.  At that time, he was focusing mostly on writing horror short stories for men’s magazines, so he more or less abandoned the epic GUNSLINGER story for the time being.

Within a few years, Stephen King became a household name.  Around the time he was working on his fifth and sixth horror novels (THE DEAD ZONE and FIRESTARTER), America’s new master of horror decided to take a look back at his weird western experiment.  He wrote a few more chapters, which were quietly published in a limited-run magazine, but continued to feel uneasy about the world of gunslinger Roland Deschain—and about Roland himself, who seemed to be a very reprehensible character.  In particular, King was haunted by Roland’s relationship with boy named Jake Chambers.  In THE GUNSLINGER novel, Roland becomes a kind of father-figure to Jake… but his loyalty to his surrogate “son” is eclipsed by his obsession with the Man in Black and a mysterious quest to reach The Dark Tower.

THE DARK TOWER Movie (2017) Roland (Idris Elba) and Jake (Tom Taylor)

King tried for years to put the story out of his mind completely, but he couldn’t do it.  He skirted along the edge of the gunslinger’s world in the 1984 fantasy novels THE TALISMAN and THE EYES OF THE DRAGON, and he began unconsciously building the mythology of his epic series in the final act of his horror novel IT.  That 1986 novel (his “final exam” on horror) marked the end of one phase of King’s career and the beginning of a new phase, which would be subtly dominated by THE DARK TOWER.

In the mid to late 1980s, while King was wrestling with personal demons, he was also constantly questioning the nature of reality, and making brief excursions into what literary types call “meta-fiction.”  The second DARK TOWER book, THE DRAWING OF THE THREE, expanded Roland’s fantasy world by literally opening three doors that directly connected it to “our world.”  In the novel, King’s Leone-esque gunslinger finds himself in New York City in the years 1966, 1977, and 1987, where he acquires three unlikely traveling companions who will go with him on his quest.  What Roland finds in the “real world” of New York is the meaning, and the means, of a quest to save all worlds by saving The Dark Tower.

At the end of the 1980s, Stephen King explained to interviewer Janet Beaulieu how Roland’s quest directly applies to the world we know: “Everybody in THE GUNSLINGER kind of shrugs and says, ‘Well, the world’s moved on.’  But the point is that if nobody tries to stop the world from moving on, inertia will take care of all our problems.  The whales will all be gone, the ozone layer will be depleted.  There’ll be a degeneration where technology continues to progress and there’s no morality to keep it in check, as though machines would somehow solve all of our problems.”  The author saw it as his sacred duty to keep charting Roland’s quest—although he expressed some concern that it might not end the way he wanted it to.

Michael Whelan: still far from the tower

Perhaps for that reason, THE DARK TOWER series continued to progress slowly.  The third book, THE WASTE LANDS, appeared in 1991 and elaborated the mythology… but left the characters, and King’s constant readers, hanging for six long years. When Book Four finally arrived in 1997, it turned out to be a prequel, delving into Roland’s origin story instead of continuing his journey to the Dark Tower.  King later confessed that he was afraid to move forward. In an afterword to Book Four, he suggested that he was worried about starting again and finding out that “the words aren’t there anymore.”

Nevertheless, bits and pieces of the DARK TOWER mythology kept coming through—forcing their way into the author’s unrelated work.  The schizophrenic 1994 novel INSOMNIA is basically a horror novel that the author struggled to write because the world of THE DARK TOWER kept imposing itself on happenings in small-town Maine. In subsequent works like “Everything’s Eventual” (from the short story collection of the same name) and “Low Men in Yellow Coats” (from HEARTS IN ATLANTIS), King worked out key elements of the DARK TOWER mythology that would allow him to move forward.  But he still couldn’t pull the trigger.  Years later, he said that he already knew the story of Book Five in 1997, but chose to write HEARTS IN ATLANTIS instead because continuing THE DARK TOWER “seemed like too much work.” And that was almost the end of the matter.

When Stephen King was hit by a car in 1999, it seemed like Roland’s quest may have ended prematurely. Apparently, this was a possibility that kept the author himself up at night. He tackled a few different projects during his long recovery from the accident, but when he had his full strength back, he knew it was time to resume Roland’s quest. The novel BLACK HOUSE, a sequel to THE TALISMAN, quickly became a setup for the latter half of the DARK TOWER series. Then, in late 2001, King laid out a plan to write the next final books back-to-back. “I knew it was going to be like crossing the Atlantic in a bathtub,” he later said, “and I thought I’m just going to keep on working, because if I stop, I’ll never start again.”

Michael Whelan art : Roland at the Tower

Book Five, WOLVES OF THE CALLA, appeared in 2003 and expanded THE DARK TOWER mythology to absorb practically all of King’s literary works, as well as the mythologies of many other writers—including L. Frank Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien and George Lucas.  For those who haven’t read the novel, this surely requires some explaining—but, for the sake of time and simplicity, I’m just going just sum up by saying the book (and, at this point, the series as a whole) revolves around the notion that everything is real and the fictional worlds of imaginative writers are important for real-life survival.

Things get pretty heady in Book Six, SONG OF SUSANNAH, as Stephen King becomes a character in his own series—but this effectively sets the stage for the only honest resolution the author could embrace for his series.  I don’t want to ruin the ending for future readers, so let me just say that that the written ending is essentially Stephen King’s surrender of THE DARK TOWER story to the ages.  Nearly half a century after he first dreamed of Roland Deschain and The Man in Black crossing an unnamed desert, the author had come to believe that his characters will have (or already have) a life completely independent of their creator—the way that characters created by L. Frank Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien and George Lucas have become independent of their creators.  THE DARK TOWER movie is the first step in turning that dream into reality.

The journey is just beginning.